How to Prepare for the Future: 4K TV

I often say this is an amazing time for time-lapse for two important reasons. The first is the availability of digital cameras. The second is HDTV, the biggest change in television since color. As we produce content now, what foreseeable advances should we prepare for, if any? Is there any way to future proof our videos?

What’s 4K TV?

The current standard of HDTV is 1080p, or 1920×1080 pixels. By comparison, the 4K format uses 3840×2160 pixels. As you can see from the rough diagram, this is much bigger than anything currently available.

Digital_video_resolutions_(VCD_to_4K).svg

At current TV sizes, 1080p is about as much detail as we can discern from across the room on a 42″ TV. As TVs get bigger (and don’t they always?) we’ll have to use a higher density pixel format to avoid losing detail. 4K is supposed to be the answer to this problem.

But Will We Use It?

There are some strong indicators that say we’ll use 4K as a standard format sometime in the near future. First is the size. The 4K aspect ratio has almost become standardized among many manufacturers, which means limited production can start without fear of competing standards.

The second is availability of cameras. There are several professional grade cameras that can record in full 4K. Even the GoPro HERO3 Black Edition has a 4K mode, albeit at a slow 15fps.

Third is the availability of 4K televisions. There have been a couple of TVs in the $20k range, but the price is expected to drop quickly, just like with HDTV. The latest CES show featured even more TVs and promised lower prices.

The Problems

There’s a very real technical problem of simply finding a way to deliver such an enormous file. We can stream a movie onto an HDTV at 720p without noticing much of a difference, but how does a company deliver 4K content over the internet? What type of compression would work the best? And will internet service providers balk at the amount of data flowing over their networks? Even Tom Lowe’s TimeScapes time-lapse movie has to be physically delivered on a flash drive if you order it in 4K.

How Does this Affect Me?

As a time-lapse photographer, your current footage could soon look as obsolete as shows from the 90s look today. So if you’re worried about how your videos will look on monitors that are already exceeding 1080p, or want to keep your stock footage viable, consider shooting and editing for the larger format. Instead of leaving a lot of room to crop, make sure you can pull out images at least 4096×3112 pixels, which is the largest size of the competing formats.

The good news is that most DSLRs should be able to handle the new requirement already. My Canon 60D, for example, has a maximum resolution of 5184×3456 pixels. Unfortunately, my monitor is still 1080p, which puts me in a similar situation to two years ago when I regularly published HD videos but could never see them on my lower resolution monitor. This makes it a little hard to see small mistakes that disappear at lower resolution.

In case you think this is all an act in predicting distant changes, consider that YouTube and other video sites already allow uploads much bigger than 1080p. I hear they look fantastic. Guess I’ll find out in a few years when I upgrade my monitor.

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